The History and Evolution of Standup Paddle Boarding

We discuss the history and evolution of the sport of stand up paddle boarding.


early paddle boarders and us coast guard

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, offering a unique and versatile way to enjoy water-based activities. The modern sport of stand up paddling traces its earlier forms back to the indigenous, ancient cultures that inhabited the Pacific Ocean islands. Historically, these communities relied heavily on the ocean for transportation, fishing, and recreation. Paddle boarding, in particular, was a practical means of navigating the waters and conducting everyday tasks.

It can be said that variations of the watersport can even be traced back to ancient Egypt. Over time, these ancient techniques and practices have evolved into the modern sport of SUP, which now captivates a wide audience with its accessibility and diverse range of disciplines.

Early history of SUP and paddle surfing

surf board

Egyptians were known to stand and paddle their boats on the Nile as they would trade and fish but credit for the modern stand up paddling culture is attributed to the Polynesians and their surfing heritage coupled with their need to fish and travel between islands.

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) shares a deep connection with the Polynesians and their surf culture particularly. The Polynesians, who inhabited the Pacific Ocean islands, were the first to develop the art of wave riding, which eventually evolved into modern surfing. Surfing was an integral aspect of their culture and society, with the highest-ranking members often being the most skilled surfers. In this context, stand up paddling emerged as a precursor to surfing, enabling navigators to move easily across the water while standing on their boards and using a paddle for propulsion.

The ancient Polynesians were known for their impressive seafaring skills and ability to traverse vast distances across the Pacific Ocean. Paddle boarding played a crucial role in their daily lives, allowing them to travel between islands, fish, and engage in recreational activities. As they maneuvered through the water, they would use long paddles to propel themselves forward, laying the groundwork for the modern sport of SUP. This ancient practice of standing and paddling on a surfboard-like vessel highlights the deep-seated cultural roots of stand up paddle boarding in Polynesian history and showcases the enduring human fascination with water-based activities.

Peruvian Totora reed boats

paddle boarders and a pearl diver

By Roy & Danielle - Totora reed fishing boats on the beach at Huanchaco, Peru

While the Polynesian culture is often credited as the primary origin of stand up paddle boarding, the Peruvian totora reed boats also hold a significant connection to the sport's development. These traditional Peruvian watercraft, known as "caballitos de totora," were used by local fishermen for thousands of years along the coastal regions of Peru. Constructed from buoyant totora reeds, these boats provided a stable platform for fishermen to stand and paddle through the waves. The design and concept of standing and paddling on these reed boats parallel the fundamental principles of SUP, demonstrating an early example of stand up paddle boarding practices. Though the connection between the totora reed boats and modern SUP may not be as widely recognized as the Polynesian influence, it is important to acknowledge the role these ancient Peruvian vessels played in the evolution of the sport.

First photographic evidence

paddle surfing

In 1886 photographer Peter Henry Emerson captured a photo of a man stand up paddling through the marshes of East Anglia in the UK. The photo is called “Quanting the Marsh Hay.” It is possible that this is the first photographic record of stand up paddling. He was thought to be the first European to give the sport a try.

Beach Boy surfing modern stand up paddling origins

john zapotocky in the surf

The Waikiki Beach Boys played a significant role in the modern development of stand up paddling in the 20th century. These skilled watermen were known for their expertise in surfing and other water-based activities on the iconic Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. As surf instructors, they taught both locals and tourists how to ride the waves, and in doing so, contributed to the growth of surfing and other water sports.

One prominent member of the Waikiki Beach Boys, Bobby Ah Choy, is often credited with the evolution of modern SUP. In the 1940s, Bobby Ah Choy would stand on his longboard and use canoe paddles to propel himself out to the surf break, with a pack of cigarettes tied to his arm and a camera around his neck, where he would teach and take photographs of his surf students while paddling in the surf zone. He had been injured in a car accident which restricted him from swimming or kneeling so the standing position of SUP worked well for him.

This innovative approach to maneuvering on a surfboard attracted attention and laid the foundation for the contemporary sport of stand up paddle boarding. Bobby, his brother Leroy and their father John “Pops” Ah Choy also nicknamed "Father John", along with swimming and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku all made up the early beach boy surfing contingency. Pops could be seen sporting a builder's hat, knee pads and a kayak paddle on a longboard or attaching a beach chair to a board and fishing off of it (the birth of SUP fishing).

After the sport fizzled out in the 1950's John Zapotocky, who was introduced to stand up paddling by the Ah Choys refused to give up his paddle. Zapotocky could be seen SUP surfing with a kayak paddle seven decades later and is largely considered to be the father of the modern stand up surfing movement. In his advanced age, he would have younger surfers carry his paddle board to the water.

Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama

captain james cook paddle boards with laird hamilton

Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, two influential watermen and world champion surfers (of the big wave variety) from the Hawaiian Islands, played pivotal roles in the modern roots of stand up paddling through their innovations in board design. In the early 2000s, the duo began experimenting with larger surfboards and paddles to catch waves more efficiently and increase their wave count. They adapted boards by increasing their size, width, and buoyancy, making it easier for riders to balance while standing and paddling. These modifications offered increased stability and glide, which enabled surfers to catch waves earlier and ride them longer. Their work in refining paddle board design and performance transformed the sport of SUP, making it more accessible to a broader audience and sparking a surge in its popularity. Today, the innovations introduced by Hamilton and Kalama continue to shape the development of paddle boarding, with a wide range of board designs catering to various disciplines and skill levels.

The influence of Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama on stand up paddle boarding (SUP) extends beyond their innovations in board design. They were instrumental in introducing SUP to a wider audience, both within and outside the surfing community. As highly respected big-wave surfers, their adoption of SUP generated curiosity and interest in the sport among fellow surfers and water enthusiasts. They began showcasing their stand up paddling skills in various media outlets, including television shows, documentaries, and magazines in 2004. This exposure played a significant role in popularizing SUP, by demonstrating its versatility as a sport that could be enjoyed in various water conditions, from flatwater to ocean surf. Their passion and advocacy for SUP contributed to its rapid growth, inspiring people from diverse backgrounds to engage with this accessible and versatile water activity.

South America plays a role

laird hamilton in san diego

Two Brazilian surfers, Osmar Goncalves and Joao Roberto Hafers might well have been stand up surfing on a floating platform before the modern day Hawaiians had their photos plastered in surfing magazines. Riding a board called a Tabua Havaiana (Hawaiian plank) shaped by Julio Putz, these two excitable surfers were definitely pioneers who never really received the same accolades that the Hawaiian watermen got.

Fletcher Burton

ancient cultures paddling

Another adventurous surfer turned wave ski surfer, Fletcher Burton from California, should also be credited as being a pioneer in the advent of modern stand up surfing. Paddling into waves back in the early 1990s, with his kayak paddle seated on his wave ski, he would jump to his feet once on the wave, and surf the wave in much the same way today's professional big wave surfers do.

Rick Thomas

rick thomas

The modern version of stand up paddling remained a Hawaiian past time until Vietnam veteran, Rick Thomas, brought one from Hawaii to California in 2004. The watersport caught on instantly on the mainland with Rick's introduction. Many argue that because of his influence, SUP has spread all over the globe. Bob Long from Mission Surf in San Diego has suggested that there are 6 degrees of separation between anyone in California who has learned to stand up paddle and Rick Thomas.

SUP as a competitive sport

As the sport gained global popularity, the early adopters realized that SUP contests could be very popular. They turned out to be correct as the early contests had instant appeal with young surfers and racers.

The Buffalo Big Board Contest

brian keaulana paddle surfing

The Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic, held annually at Makaha Beach in Oahu, Hawaii, is a highly anticipated event that pays tribute to the rich history and culture of Hawaiian surfing. In 2003, Brian Keaulana decided to add ‘'Beach Boy Surfing'' to the world-recognized ‘'Buffalo Big Board Contest''. The response was impressive, with over 49 participants entering the Stand up division, which included many of Hawaii's elite watermen and past world champion surfers.

The event was such a hit that soon stand up paddling contests sprung up around the country. The Battle of the Paddle in Dana Point, CA and the Carolina Cup in Wrightsville Beach, NC and the Goat Boater in Tega Cay, South Carolina were three earlier forms of SUP contests that brought SUP racing participants in from around the country.

SUP boards for various disciplines

median age for practicing rescue techniques and canoe racing

Now that we've covered SUP history, we can talk about how stand up paddling has evolved from a board boat hybrid that was more like dugout canoes from a Koa Tree and were powered with a long bamboo shaft to a diverse sports with several disciplines to participate in. These days what makes the sport attractive to most paddle boarders, is that there is a board for every SUP discipline a person might want to participate in.

If you are interested in touring large bodies of water on your paddle board, there is a longer, narrower board for you. For the great core workout that SUP yoga gives, you will want a yoga specific board. River running? We've got a board for that! Surfing? There is a specialized board for that too. Or you can just buy an all around board and participate in all of the SUP disciplines.


Stand up paddle boarding has a very ancient history that was forged by some truly unique pioneers. In the last decade we have watched it explode in popularity as it has been exported from the Hawaiian Islands to the rest of the globe as various SUP disciplines have taken hold. So, grab your personal flotation device and get out there and give it a try!